July 10, 1942—When Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons premiered, the greatest indignity to the movie industry’s bruised wonder boy wasn’t that his project occupied space on a bill with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. It was that 50 minutes had not merely been cut, but that the negatives had been destroyed to free vault space at RKO Studios. Thus, the actor-hyphenate wouldn’t be able to piece the film together once he returned to the United States from shooting a documentary in South America.
Before filming began, Welles claimed that Booth Tarkington had his own father in mind when creating Eugene Morgan, the auto inventor, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. There may have been some storytelling sleight-of-hand here, as there's no evidence that the author and Welles' father ever knew each other. But Welles unquestionably had some affinity for another George Amberson Minafer: both had the same first name, and both were widely regarded as spoiled brats.
But George Amberson Minafer and George Orson Welles did have one larger, sadder thing in common: both received the comeuppance that so many had desired for them, losing something of great value in the process.
The excitement generated when RKO gave Welles unheard-of creative control of his material vanished partly because of the battle over his startling rookie film, Citizen Kane. Welles had turned in a motion picture of such daring and epic grandeur that it has appeared regularly on “Greatest Films of All Time” lists ever since. But it was not profitable after its release in 1941, mainly because the media mogul it had dared to criticize, in thinly veiled terms, William Randolph Hearst, made sure his papers did not cover the film.
The suits at RKO, then, had no reason to regard Welles with reverence by this point, then. He had committed the single sin that Hollywood, home of bullies, cheats, liars, braggarts, and perverts of every
known description, can never tolerate: his movie had lost money. (In fact, it had lost $150,000.)
In a prior post, I discussed the circumstances surrounding RKO’s termination of Welles’ contract two years after The Magnificent Ambersons. It is true that, to a large extent, Welles was undone in the Amberson affair by the trait that had made him such an overwhelming force in theater and radio to begin with: tornado-like energy.
I chose that last, relatively unusual adjective deliberately. A tornado is not only something beyond human force, but something out of the ordinary in the larger natural world. Its power to destroy is commensurately enormous, then.
Welles was not where he was supposed to be—in Hollywood, supervising the editing of Ambersons—because he had scampered down to Brazil at the request of Nelson Rockefeller, then in charge of Latin American affairs at the State Department, to film a documentary, It’s All True. He had elected to do something similar on earlier occasions, such as when he left a subordinate handle implementing the vision he had sketched out for an Aaron Copland opera for high-school students, The Second Hurricane (again, recounted by me in a prior post).
But not focusing one’s attention on a group of teens is one thing; not attending to a movie with a million-dollar budget, with the fate of the executive who’s your biggest booster at the studio, hanging in the balance, is quite another. After RKO’s George Schaefer, who had given Welles the notorious “final cut” contract (and who, in fact, with not survive a purge by the studio's board later that year), urged the director to finish the film in time for an Easter opening, Welles had editor Robert Wise and his crew editing and shooting new footage on a triple-shift pace to meet the deadline.
Two previews—especially the first, relentlessly hostile one—in Pomona, Calif., spooked RKO, particularly Schaefer, who wrote Welles: “Never in all my experience in the industry have I taken so much punishment or suffered as I did at the Pomona preview.” The audience at the first preview, where Welles’ film was on a bill with a cheery Betty Hutton musical comedy called The Fleet’s In, were woefully unprepared for a movie that went from lightly satirical to Chekhovian loss in the last 45 minutes. Studio lawyers told Schaefer that Welles’ right of “final cut” was—well, not quite final; a new contract signed by the director permitted him final-cut approval up to and including the first sneak preview, but not beyond that.
That gave RKO the opening they needed. And it should be said at this juncture: though Welles bears much culpability for the way things turned out, RKO deserves a greater share of the blame for this whole mess. It wasn’t only that they didn’t adequately investigate Welles’ reputation for spending in the theater world, but also that they chose to disregard the director’s useful suggestions coming via multiple cablegrams. He had shown, in one especially dazzling sequence from Citizen Kane, how to reduce several pages of dialogue covering the dissolution of a marriage down to no more than two minutes of screen time; he, as much as anyone, knew how to preserve the film's continuity and maybe even make it better.
One story I have read about the Ambersons fiasco is that studio heads made themselves scarce whenever a Welles suggestion arrived. If that is so, they have an even heavier share of responsibility for how things turned out. At their direction, Wise cut the movie down to 88 minutes, 50 minutes fewer than Welles' original cut and a full half hour from the one shown at the second Pomona preview.
Welles would never again have the full resources of a studio at his beck and call the way he had with The Magnificent Ambersons. To be sure, with his lack of interest in post-production (a penchant he would display later in his career, too), had precipitated his own dilemma. But over the years, RKO would bear its own share of infamy for mutilating a film that, even in its radically cut version, has all the signs of greatness.